Three Award Winners to Check Out
You might ask your dentist to recommend a good toothpaste, buy a sneaker endorsed by a professional basketball player or pick a veterinarian-approved pet food for your fuzzy best friend. Likewise, if you want to find the best books in the nation, just ask the authors! The National Book Awards, given each year “to writers, by writers,” celebrates the best of the best in American books. The winners are chosen by some of today’s greatest authors. Awards go to fiction, non-fiction and poetry books written for adults. And since 1996 there has been a special category just for kids--the Award for Young People’s Literature. The 2014 Young People’s award went to Jacqueline Woodson for her book Brown Girl Dreaming and was selected by a panel of book experts consisting of three top children’s authors, an independent bookstore owner, and a children’s librarian (naturally). Here’s more about some recent winners--three stellar books that are bound to become classics.
Brown Girl Dreaming is the true story of Woodson’s childhood growing up in Ohio, South Carolina and Brooklyn in the 60s and 70s, from the end of the Great Migration to the beginning of the Black Power movement. Unlike a typical history, this book is written in verse. Each chapter is a short poem in which Woodson shares memories of the family and friends who helped create the story of her life. Some of Woodson’s memories are sweet, like visiting the candy lady’s house with her grandfather for lemon-chiffon ice cream, or eating arroz con habichuelas at her best friend Maria’s house. Others are heartbreaking, like the fatal fall of her Aunt Kay, or her baby brother’s debilitating sickness. Young Jacqueline does not always understand the significance of the events unfolding around her, but she observes, listens, and eventually learns to play with words. Brown Girl Dreaming captures the inner life of young Jacqueline Woodson and the earliest days of one of the greatest writers for children of our time.
The 2013 winner was Cynthia Kadohata for her novel The Thing About Luck, in which twelve-year-old Summer leaves school to go on harvest with her younger brother and grandparents. Summer’s grandfather, Jiichan, is a combine driver hired by custom harvesters, who are themselves hired by farmers to gather crops in their wheat fields. Summer’s grandmother, Obaachan, works as a cook serving up three meals a day for the crew. Both jobs are strenuous, especially with her grandparents’ health problems. Summer must help them with their work while minding her eccentric younger brother, trying not to get infected (again) by malaria, and fumbling through a first love, first kiss and first heartbreak. The book’s meditative and peaceful descriptions of harvesting, mosquito lifecycles, and cooking perfectly balance the stress and dread of the backbreaking work. Summer’s strained relationship with her traditional Japanese grandparents will resonate not only with children whose parents or grandparents were immigrants, but with anyone who has felt the relentless and inexplicable troublesomeness of teenage angst.
Inside Out & Back Again, the 2011 winner by Thanhha Lai, is another novel written in verse. It follows one transformative year in the life of 10-year-old Hà, who escapes the violence of the Vietnam war with her family and learns to start over in Alabama. When the fighting comes to her city, all Hà’s plans are interrupted. This year she won’t be learning to embroider or turn fractions into decimals. She will never see the papaya tree she nursed from a seed bear fruit. This year she must leave her home on a dangerous boat-ride across the ocean and go to live in the American South, where the kids tease her for looking different and where she struggles to learn English. “I can’t read/ a baby book,” Hà worries, “Who will believe/ I was reading/ Nhất Linh?/ But then,/ who here knows/ who he is?” Lai, like her fictional character, had to flee Vietnam and start over in Alabama. She sensitively tells the story of what it’s like to lose your home and find your place in a strange land.
- This month's children's book reviews are by Jamie Bowers, a Children's Librarian who was until recently at the Paschalville Branch but who is currently out on parental leave with her newborn son.